Forage much? Chefs do it, Pascal Baudar does it (feel free to join him). Even UCLA professor of Italian and culinary history Luigi Ballerini does it, judging by his latest book, A Feast of Weeds: A Literary Guide to Foraging and Cooking Wild Plants, with recipes by Ada De Santis (translated by Gianpiero W. Doebler). Though the book focuses on Italian wild edibles, most can be found in California as well (purslane, stinging nettles, wild asparagus).

Several foraging books have been making the rounds of late, among them Tama Matsuoka Wong and Eddy Leroux's excellent field guide and cookbook, Foraged Flavor. The tone of A Feast of Weeds is noticeably more academic, with its textbooklike format (from bay leaves to wild strawberries) and plenty of “however” pauses and Henry David Thoreau storylines among the recipes for spaghetti with crested warty cabbage (similar to wild radish).

Those wandering academic introductory narratives reveal some of the most interesting cross-cultural wild blueberry stories. (Surprise! Some Italians think American blueberries are fat.)

Each entry begins with the history, lore, culinary and traditional medicinal uses of various foraged plants — a paste of cooked nettles spread on the forehead once was believed to reduce memory loss; arugula has long been considered a potent aphrodisiac. The recipes that follow each are straightforward. As Ballerini says in the Introduction, longtime friend De Santis' “only caution [in doing the book] was that, once transcribed, her recipes become not standardized formulas but conversation starters.” In the entry for cipollini onions, for instance, recipes include a lamb stew and sweet-and-sour cipollini, as well as pickled, pan-friend and stewed version of the bulb.

Wild purslane; Credit: flickr avlxyz

Wild purslane; Credit: flickr avlxyz

De Santis provides plenty of recipes to fuel the dinner hour, though we would argue that Ballerini provides the real argumentative fire starters in the book. That wild cipollini entry comes with this warning from the professor, after he notes they are widely available at Italian markets today: “Buying them at the market, however, is a bit like fishing for trout in the pools in which they are farmed using worms as bait. … That's not fishing, it's massacre.” Yet another item to add to our growing basket of contemporary food guilt: All that cipollini — and purslane, and stinging nettles — that we've bought at the farmers market over the years. Shame on us.

Ballerini's rambling discourses are actually part of the book's charm, as they make the book unusually lively for an academic read (we have a feeling we know where he stands on the “most Italians loath crema d'arachidi” issue).

Consider the entry on wild blueberries, in which Ballerini begins with a story about Fats Waller's “Blueberry Hill” and later Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong's interpretation of the song. The relationship, other than the song title, between such jazz greats and foraging for blueberries? “Fats is essential and Doric, like Sophocles; Satchmo, sarcastic like Euripides,” explains Ballerini matter-of-factly. What follows (?) is a discussion of the “overbearing” American varieties of the berry versus those “beautiful” Italian ones:

For Italians who have only seen blueberries at the supermarket (in plastic containers) or in some mountain forest, dewy and hanging from (beautiful) small plants no more than 6 inches tall, it is difficult to imagine them big, fat and richly displayed on the American bushes that go from a few inches to 13 feet in height — bushes that do not bring to mind the landscape of the South where jazz and rock & roll (and their above-mentioned interpreters) originated.

Ahhh, so Ballerini is keen on the creative lure of American music, those overbearing, fat wild American blueberries not so much. Ha. Well, all the more reason we'd love to invite him over for a cocktail discourse. One bonus of De Santis' blueberry grappa recipe — the liquor is strained. Turn up the jazz, and Ballerini will never know if we used last summer's unsightly American berries.

Blueberry Grappa

From Luigi Ballerini & Ada De Santis in A Feast of Weeds

Makes: 1 quart

1 cup (150 g) blueberries

2 cups (500 ml) unflavored grappa

Scant ¼ cup (40 g) sugar

1. Wash the blueberries carefully, let them drain in a tight-weave strainer, and then place them on paper towels to dry. Put the berries in a 1-quart glass container with an airtight cap. Pour in the grappa, add the sugar, and mix well with a spoon until the sugar dissolves. Cap and leave in the open for 8 days (and nights). Filter through a tight-weave strainer and store in a capped bottle.

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